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LEDELSE i DAG - September 2019

Leading in foreign lands: The Nordic Leadership Style

The Nordic leadership style is trendsetting and with good reason. The benefits of having an open, transparent and inclusive approach to managing can be massive. However, as a Nordic leader, one needs to adapt to the local realities to avoid pitfalls.

Every year, many leaders leave Denmark to go abroad to work and lead in new and foreign lands. Some leave to return a few years later, an expat experience richer and full of new ideas and examples of how to lead with the best from the foreign region, combined with what works in the Nordic setting. Others stay abroad for years, eventually maybe even ending up settling themselves completely into a new homeland.

However, whether you end up staying or returning, the years you spend abroad will not only influence your leadership when returning; you will – as a leader – also have influenced many while abroad.

In this article I take a look at what characterises Nordic leadership, as well as what one needs to be aware of, when leaving the region to work and lead in a part of the world, where successful leadership might be perceived very differently from what successful leadership is considered as in Denmark.

We need to be aware of the possible pitfalls of bringing a style, which has worked well in one of the Nordic countries, and then unconsciously applying it in a new setting without taking into consideration what the prevalent way of leading and succeeding is there.

What is Nordic Leadership?

Six characteristics summarises very well what the specific Nordic leadership style is all about:

  1. Nordic Leadership is Nurturing and caring
  2. Open and transparent
  3. Responsive
  4. Direct and result-oriented
  5. Inclusive and involving
  6. Committed and purpose-driven

It is a style which builds on a low power-distance, believes in equality and equal rights for all and a high degree of delegation and trust, requiring a well-educated workforce, used to taking responsibility for running with and delivering on their own tasks and projects without too much follow up.

Let us dig a little deeper, and take a look at what the 6 Nordic Leadership characteristics further entail and what the possible pitfalls are if you apply them unconsciously or without matching them with the style you meet in the non-Nordic region.

Nurturing
Nordic leaders care. They take personal needs and aspirations into consideration, when leading and growing the organisation, teams and individuals.

For Nordic leaders, caring about others and wanting to get to know employees at a personal level is the norm, not the exception. This is based on some basic assumptions about what creates good results – that when people feel safe, seen, heard, understood and met with respect, they thrive and perform better.

Nordic leaders, however, do not use the caring and nurturing style just to get better results, but simply because they are used to a more jovial, equal way of engaging with employees, colleagues at the same level and even own managers. This may sometimes confuse people in societies with more formal, hierarchical structures. Therefore, the leader needs to take this into consideration in the interaction with people in a new setting.

A good advice is to be very clear about why you would show this kind of interest and care; that it simply is a way of leading that you have had great experiences with in the past and that this is who you are: a leader that is genuinely interested in other people and their well-being.

Examples of how Nordic leaders have successfully brought a caring and nurturing style into other non-Nordic regions are leaders who have established “Fika Tables”. “Fika” is a Swedish expression for having coffee and eating cake, and the concept at the workplace is used to let important decisions be discussed in an informal setting. Another example is the introduction of a “Friday Bar”, which simply is about having a beer after work hours on Fridays. This concept establishes more trust amongst co-workers and shows that it is acceptable to be friendly with one another at the workplace and to talk about other things other than just the task in front of you.

Some Nordic leaders have also introduced personal developmental plans, and in some instances even budgeted for the employees to develop themselves further, preparing for the future and adding to their skills and knowledge.

When using a nurturing style outside the Nordic Region, it is not only important that the leader is very clear about the fact that this is intentional, but also to know the fine line between being personal and being private. When successfully applied, the Nordic leader is able to master not getting into the intimacy of the employees private lives whilst building personal relationships, where insights into strengths and weaknesses, preferences, likes and dislikes are gained. Insights, which the leader can then use to build the strongest teams and make sure that people bring the best of themselves to work.

Open
Nordic leadership is transparent in a way, which is unusual in many other countries. Nordic Leaders share a lot of information, both when it comes to business insights and details, as well as personal details about themselves.

It is very important for Nordic Leaders to be considered as authentic and therefore, they will share information both about themselves as well as how things are going in the business, even when this is not necessarily great or good. As with the caring style, this openness sometimes confuses or even scares people in other cultures. They might see it as a weakness if you share your own vulnerability or the fact that the business is not in as great a shape as you wish it to be.

Again, what you need to do is to be transparent about why you share information, and what you wish for people to do with this information. Information is shared so that good decisions can be made. You expect people to deliver, based on their knowledge about both you as a person, but also about the state of the business. If people do not have access to information in the organisation, they cannot make wise and good decisions.

Nordic leaders do not only share information more openly, they also encourage people to be open and engage in frank and candid conversations themselves. Again, this might be very unusual in some cultural settings. Therefore, as a leader, you need to establish some ground-rules and clarity about why you are encouraging this openness in order to make the openness work and even happen in the first place.

The reason is that you value people’s viewpoints on a given problem. You may tell people that you want them to challenge you and your decisions, in fact, that you expect this. Then you follow up and start asking questions: “This is where we are – what do you think we should do now?”.

Nordic leaders do not only share information more openly, they also encourage people to be open and engage in frank and candid conversations themselves.

Pernille Hippe Bruun, Danish Business Consultant

Responsive
This is a trait which has a lot in common with a new trend emerging from the software industry – a trend which is often referred to as the Agile movement or the Lean Startup methodology.

For centuries, Nordic leaders have known that the ability to experiment and fail (and learn from mistakes and failures of course) is a prerequisite for innovation to happen. If you do not dare to experiment, try out things that no one has tried before and allow for people in your organisation to admit when they have failed, you will never evolve and find new solutions to problems.

Leading this way takes courage and openness – something we have already touched upon. When a system is built on openness and trust, people have better prerequisites for working well together AND come up with new ideas, experiment, get feedback – and thus pivot if the feedback shows that they are on the wrong track and need to do something differently.

The responsive style is characterised by leaders, who stay open and curious, willing to experiment and fail, and who build up structures where people constantly gain and get feedback. For instance by introducing daily or weekly standing meetings, where things can be openly and quickly discussed and by involving customers in giving feedback to a product at an early state, perhaps even before it is launched.

As with all the other characteristics of the Nordic leadership style, when bringing it abroad, the responsive style also has its pitfalls. The Nordic leader especially needs to be aware of the often seen “fear of losing face” culture, where employees would never admit mistakes or willingly tell openly about an experiment that failed. It is therefore important to slowly build up the trust it takes for this style to work, by, for instance, admitting own mistakes (and what one learned from it), by rewarding people to admit mistakes or by making a small contest, where the one that takes a product the earliest to market to get feedback, is winning.

Direct
Nordic Leaders are very direct in their style - or, in other words - straight forward. The Nordic leadership style can be described as a “no bullshit” style, meaning that the Nordic leader cares about results, and will often go directly to the point when a problem needs to be solved.

The very direct interaction is mainly there when it comes to dealing with a task, rather than dealing with, for instance, a conflict. Nordic leaders are not very direct when it comes to setting direction or handling interpersonal conflicts or low-performance, which probably has to do with their preference for establishing an involving, caring and open environment. It is, however, possible to both teach the Nordic leader to handle conflicts with the same directness as they handle a task-oriented problem, as well as it is possible to teach people from outside the Nordic Region to be more direct in their communication than their upbringing and school system might have taught them to be.

It is beneficial to be able to openly share very direct messages, and it leads to great effectiveness when applied, but it requires that the parties engaged in the conversation trust each other and share a mutual understanding of how a direct communication style will lead to better results. In many instances, Nordic leaders will have to be very mindful of the preferred and taught communication style of the country they have relocated to, in order not to come across as brutal, without situational awareness, or maybe even rude.

Small talk and the ability to listen and learn are crucial abilities which Nordic leaders abroad need to apply or teach themselves. So is the meta-communication about the intention with being direct: that this is applied because you care about the results, and believe that people can benefit from direct feedback or getting and giving honest input about the current state of a problem.

Small talk and the ability to listen and learn are crucial abilities which Nordic leaders abroad need to apply or teach themselves. 

Pernille Hippe Bruun, Danish Business Consultant

Inclusive
Nordic leaders love to involve and listen to employees and will not shy away from making an inclusive process before making a decision. Especially the Swedes are known for their inclusive and involving style, where everyone's opinion needs to be heard and listened to, before consensus can be made.

By including and listening to everyone, you might have a longer process at the beginning, but once implementation needs to happen, everyone will know what led to the final decision being made, and the process can thus be speeded up, because the inclusive process often, if not always, has ensured buy-in from the stakeholders.

Being inclusive, however, not only counts for the process oriented style, but also for the fact that Nordic leaders do not want to make too big a difference between genders, rich and poor, people from different religions or sexual orientations.

Nordic people in general are very egalitarian in their mind-sets. Many Nordic organisations, and thus leaders, have early on developed inclusiveness strategies to ensure that everyone is treated equally, and has equal opportunities in the organisational setting. They might inspire other organisations abroad and do, in fact, pave the way in many circumstances, like IKEA has done when it comes to cherishing an inclusive and diverse workforce. It is therefore also quite a paradox that even in the Nordic countries we suffer from an imbalance in gender representation at board and executive level.

One thing that Nordic leaders need to be aware of, though, is whether the inclusion practice, which might be seen as beneficial in one culture, also fits another. We cannot just impose inclusive policies and practices - like mandatory vacation or paternity leave – without first fully understanding the local context and nuances.

The benefits of an inclusive and diverse workforce is something Nordic leaders very well could talk openly about. It is proven again and again that inclusive and diverse teams creates better performance and results. This might serve as an argument, should you as a Nordic leader meet resistance when trying to hire for diversity or to include people in decision-making.

Committed
Nordic leaders are purpose-driven. The greater good of an organisation, why we do what we do, to what benefit and to whom, matters to Nordic leaders. In fact, it is very difficult to motivate Nordic people to perform if they do not understand or buy into the bigger vision. This is probably due to the fact that the Nordic school system values and teaches critical thinking, teamwork and innovative solutions which might solve real-life problems.

Once Nordic leaders find themselves in an organisational setting, they instinctively try to establish some kind of purpose and meaning and explain to people why something needs to be done, rather than just saying “this needs to be done” without giving a reason.

Many Nordic organisations have early on adapted to the 17 UN developmental goals and are vocal about how they and their organisations intend to help solve some of the world’s biggest challenges and problems. While this may be inspirational and aspirational to many Nordic employees, this might not always be the case in other countries, where the mere survival and the monthly or weekly paycheck might be what matters the most to some employees.

We therefore, as with all the other characteristics of the Nordic leadership style, need to adapt and mix and match the Nordic style with the local practices and realities. This requires both emotional intelligence and situational awareness. When mastered, the benefits of bringing the Nordic style abroad are massive. People thrive, get more motivated, engaged and inspired, and they are able to change directions when needed.

Interestingly enough, we presently see a trend where international leadership styles are converging more and more towards the Nordic style, showing that this style might be exactly what is needed in an ever-changing, fast-moving and intense business world.

About the author

Pernille Hippe Brun is a Danish Business Consultant, who has extensive experience of Nordic leadership, gained both in Denmark and overseas. Between 2005-2010 Pernille was partner and co-owner of the Danish company, Resonans, which specialized in advising, consulting and leading Organizational Change and Leadership Development.

Pernille currently acts as strategic advisor for the global company Tradeshift, and is a sought-after coach, facilitator, consultant and speaker, covering the topics of leadership and the future of work.

Notes:

  1. The six characteristics are based on theoretical insights from previous books and articles on the topic (see book references below) as well as interviews with 58 Nordic Leaders, whom for 2 or more years have or had been leading in foreign lands outside the Nordic region. The characteristics are further described in the book On the Move – Lessons for the Future from Nordic Leaders.

    • Adam, H. et al. (2018): The Shortest Path to Oneself Leads Around the World: Living Abroad Increases Self-Concept Clarity. In Organisational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, vol. 145, March 2018, page 16-29. Link: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2018.01.002.

    • Andersen, L.R. et al. (2017): The Nordic Secret: A European Story of Beauty and Freedom. Fri Tanke.

    • Andreasson, U. (2018): Nordiskt Lederskab. Nordiska Ministerrådet, Analys #2, 2018.

    • Brun, P.H. (2019): On the Move – Lessons for the Future from Nordic Leaders. People’s Press.

    • Coyle, D. (2017): The Culture Code. The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. Penguin RandomHouse.

    • Hofstede, G. et al. (2010): Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind. McGraw-Hill.

    • Malone, T. & a. Woolley (2011): Defend your Research. What makes a Team Smarter – More Women. In Harvard Business Review, June 2011. Link: https://hbr.org/2011/06/defend-your-research-what-makes-a-team-smarter-more-women.

    • Meyer, E. (2015): Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da. In Harvard Business Review, December 2015. Link: https://hbr.org/2015/12/getting-to-si-ja-oui-hai-and-da.

    • Schramm-Nielsen, J. et al. (2004): Management in Scandinavia. Culture, Context and Change. Edvard Elgar.

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